Tanner finds substantial anecdotal evidence that people get more trivial news and less substantial news than used to be the case. Due to the internet disrupting the old newspaper model the place where analysis used to be done newspapers are shrinking and having to cater to what their readers want rather than what the writers think they should read. However, Tanner does not provide a comparison to the media people were actually absorbing in earlier times.
Tanner also thinks that analysis on the internet is often more partisan and more trivial. Clearly he hasn’t seen the depth of tweets in response to Q & A.
Tanner claims that the politicians of the past would not have been able to perform in the gaffe hunting, poll driven media storm of today. He ignores the fact that Howard and Costello brought in a GST, balanced budgets for 11 years and brought in a massive industrial relations change in the current environment. Even the Rudd government, driven by a politician many regard as the most media obsessed ever, was very proud of their response to the GFC that was directed by the expertise in treasury. It was substantial policy in response to circumstance. Had it held it’s nerve it could also have passed greenhouse gas emissions limiting legislation after a double dissolution election.
However, Tanner does have something of a point. An awful lot of media coverage is permutations of trivia, press release driven ‘announceables’ that are insubstantial. He even admits he happily played the game. Tanner does not seem to give much credit to the public for regarding such media as a waste of its time and instead assessing governments in a more subtle, more substantial way. An individual bad story or gaffe announcement gets put into people’s overall picture. Substantial changes, such as changing a PM and changing course multiple times on major issues are perhaps what drive the people who change their vote to actually change their vote.
Another way to look at the book is that it is sour grapes. Tanner was the most substantial of the ‘gang of four’ (Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner) who are alleged to have directed much of ALP policy during the Rudd government. Tanner is genuinely interested in policy, having written at least 9 books, including Crowded Lives, before coming to major office under the Rudd government. Many people, including myself, though he should be treasurer. However, when Rudd was undone and eclipsed by Gillard, who is alleged to have been a rival of Tanner, Tanner abruptly announced his resignation. Instead of Tanner seeing his government as a strange failure caused by the failings of Kevin Rudd and strange circumstance Tanner sees the problem as being the media.
Tanner is fairly even handed in the book, although he can’t help taking a few potshots at Tony Abbott as an opportunist who stands for nothing. Abbott’s book and his previous ministerial career is given no attention in the attacks.
The book is worth reading and is far better than Tanner’s last. Whether the thesis is correct or not is highly contestable but it is certainly worth taking seriously. Tanner has, ironically, made a substantial contribution to political discourse that has been quite successful as a book.